Facebook's Mistake Causes Unintentional Harm

Published: December 28, 2014 4:28 PM /



The end of the year is a great time to look back on the events of the last year. Facebook's Year in Review app is supposed to provide users with a look back on their best moments of the year. However an oversight in the app's algorithm has caused some unintended harm.

Facebook user Eric Meyer writes in his blog about an unwelcome surprise when he saw the preview for his year in review. It showed the picture of his daughter, who had died that year. This understandably caused some grief to Meyer. However he did not accuse Facebook of being deliberately malicious, and in fact attributed the error to an understandable oversight.

Rather than react in anger toward Facebook, Meyer used this opportunity to raise awareness of an issue that goes beyond this particular app, designing software with the worst case scenario in mind, to prevent events like this from happening. Meyer even offered some simple suggestions to fix the problem, by simply letting users opt out.

In a follow-up blog post, Meyer revealed that he received an apology from the product manager of the app, Jonathan Gheller. Meyer himself apologized to them for dropping this problem on them over the holidays, and bringing down the wrath of the Internet on them. He further emphasizes that this is not a problem unique to Facebook, and is a serious issue plaguing numerous online services. He was merely trying to raise attention to a serious issue, and used this as a recent example. He did not intend to single them out for derision, because of the app's failure in this case.

Meyer criticizes news outlets heaping scorn on the Facebook team who designed the app, who blamed the oversight on privilege and lack of life experience. He pointed that even experienced developers can make mistakes like this, and fail to plan for every possible scenario the app might encounter. It seems the lesson here is simply that there has to be a broader understanding of this issue in the tech industry, and developers need to work harder to account for special cases like these when designing their services.



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